Birds uniting people

On Saturday, May 8th, Kenya joined the rest of the world to appreciate birds around them during the eBird Global Big Day. More than 51,000 people from 192 countries took part in arguably one of the biggest global bird watching event. The day saw a record one billion bird observations registered!

Kenya ranked 6th in the world with 811 bird species recorded, reaffirming its position as one of the global birding giants. In the top ten country list, Kenya was the only non-Americas (South and North). It was indeed a fantastic day for the birding fraternity in the country.


Appreciation goes out to the Nature Kenya Site Support Groups (SSGs) members from South Nandi Forest, Lake Elmenteita, Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, Mida Creek, Taita Hills, Mt. Kenya forest, Kinangop grasslands, Yala Swamp, Mumoni Hills and Tana River Delta for their outstanding contributions.  Kudos to Henry Ole Sanoe (Lake Elmenteita) and Ibrahim Ogolla (Yala Swamp) for making it to the country’s top ten eBirders list with 235 and 197 recorded species, respectively.

A special mention also goes out to Nature Kenya staff for their submissions to boost the Kenya list. They include Emily Mateche and Moses Nyawasa (Yala Swamp), Jennifer Adero (Tana River Delta), Juliet Mbaka (Loresho swamp), Paul Gacheru (Gitathura dam), Richard Kipngeno (Nairobi National Museum grounds) and Peter Muriithi (Paradise Lost).

It was great to see such enthusiasm from birders of all walks of life. Salute to you all. You made Kenya proud.

All in all, the Global Big Day in Kenya was a great success. The next event is on October 9th. It may sound far off, but early preparations are necessary.


Croc here to stay?

In February, we reported the sighting of a Nile Crocodile on the banks of the Nairobi River at the Michuki Memorial Park. Interest, fear and skepticism greeted news of this unusual sighting in equal measure. Guess what, our reptile friend is still around, at the very same spot!

Today we stumbled on the croc, doing what it loves doing: basking by the river bank. It was not alone, though. Four Hadada ibises stood next to the croc, evidently maintaining a social distance.

Surprisingly, the recent rains seem not to have swept the crocodile further downstream. Interestingly, it also appeared to be well-nourished.


Crocodile aside, we were fortunate to spot a Great Sparrowhawk. The raptor flew in and perched high on a tall eucalyptus tree, a short distance from the nesting site (see the previous post). Eagerly, we waited to see if the sparrowhawk would fly to the nest. Well, it did not. The bird stayed put on the same spot for over 20 minutes.  By the time we left, it had not budged a single inch.


Our walk took us on almost a similar path to last week’s. There were many birds to listen to and watch. We started at the courtyard. Several Pied Crows were on the courtyard’s cabro-paved floor, pecking on termites that had flown out of their mounds the previous evening. Moving towards the Peace Path, we came across some White-eyed Slaty Flycatchers and Variable Sunbirds. Down near the Nairobi National Museum-Michuki Memorial Park boundary, we encountered Willow and Grey-capped Warblers, Holub’s Golden and Baglafecht Weavers, Northern Olive Thrush (now also called Abyssinian Thrush), Streaky Seedeaters, Bronze Mannikins, Singing Cisticolas, African Citrils, among others.


At Michuki Park, we spotted Village Indigobirds, Spectacled and Village Weavers, Montane White-eyes, Silvery-cheeked Hornbills, a Lesser Honeyguide, to mention a few. Today’s count was 29, plus of course, the crocodile.

Elusive sighting

Great Sparrowhawks have been nesting in a tall eucalyptus tree at the Nairobi National Museum for about a decade. In 2020 the nest disappeared, perhaps destroyed by heavy rain. The sparrowhawks, however, were still sighted at the museum.

For three separate days this April, John Mwacharo and I have been visiting a particular spot at the Nairobi National Museum grounds looking for a nesting Great Sparrowhawk. Today was no different. As usual, we set out early in the morning, armed with a pair of binoculars and a camera.

Like all our previous attempts, this hunt disappointedly yielded no result. Having abandoned this quest, for now, we decided to take a stroll at the adjacent Michuki Memorial Park.

Our leisurely walk took us downstream, on a path along the Nairobi River. Some months back, during a similar bird walk, we were amazed to find a crocodile basking on the river bank at this very spot. Today’s stroll was different. A few pairs of Hadada Ibises probed the green grass in search of food not far from a group of Bronze Mannikins. Up in the sky were a few Black Kites spiralling. The occasional chirping of Singing Cisticolas serenaded our beautiful morning.

Suddenly, two Black-backed Puffbacks appeared. One of the puffbacks, apparently a male, perched on a tree branch and put on a display. It started fanning its pure white plumes on its back in the shape of a powder puff. Not so far away, the other individual put up a similar display. Could it have been some form of competition, perhaps to win over the attention of a female? Or maybe a tussle over territory? We were left guessing.

Further ahead, we came across a lone male Red-backed Shrike. This Palearctic migrant kept hopping from one tree to another. Luckily for us, we managed to get a few shots of the bird before it flew away.

After spending a while downstream, it was time to head back. Colourful displays of blooming wildflowers brightened our path. A distinct bird call drew us to a canopy of tall trees. Unmistakably, it was that of a Black Cuckoo. For days I had been on the trail of this cuckoo – hardly ever recorded in Nairobi – at that particular area. All of my previous attempts to secure a sighting of this treetop dweller had ended in disappointment. On this day, we were determined to see the bird.

Several scans of the treetops once again yielded no visuals. Concealed, amidst the tree branches, lay the cuckoo. While we were unable to pinpoint its exact position, the bird insistently tormented us with its call. Perhaps a change of location would do the trick?

Strategically, we relocated to a spot directly under an avocado tree. Once again, we meticulously scanned the tree branches for any movement. Our efforts bore fruit this time around! Camouflaged between the topmost avocado branches sat the elusive bird. After several attempts, we barely managed a few not so clear snaps.

A feeling of triumph swept over us as we reviewed the photos we had taken that morning. The morning outing was refreshing. All in all, our impromptu morning bird walk recorded 28 species. Not bad, huh?

Tales from the Wild: In Pursuit of the Sokoke Scops Owl

It was on a Friday, the last day of our community-led Sokoke Scops Owl survey, and my colleagues and I drove smoothly up the wide and well-surfaced Malindi-Tsavo East road towards Jilore. Our mission was to find a forest track and lay transects for the survey.

“Only three more transects to go,” I encouraged my colleagues.

We came to a stop adjacent to the famous Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, parked and locked up the vehicle. An electric fence separated us from the forest, so we crawled under. Once inside, we walked parallel to the fence, looking for a track.

After trekking for a while, we came to a clear track running deep into the forest. I, playing the role of supervisor this night, alerted the local forester of our presence and we ventured further inward, even as dusk was rapidly falling. Nothing could have prepared us for what was coming.

The Endangered Sokoke Scops Owl is one of six unique species of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. This diminutive owl is a habitat specialist. It has only been recorded in Cynometra webberi/Brachylaena huillensis forests and woodlands on the East African coast, from Dakatcha Woodland on Kenya’s north coast to the Usambara Mountains in north-eastern Tanzania.

Like the other 16 owl species found in Kenya, Sokoke Scops Owls, are predominantly nocturnal, active from dusk to dawn. Their large forward-facing eyes give them superior vision at night. This, combined with their sharp hearing, enable them to spot prey in darkness. Unlike other owls that feed on arthropods, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds, the Sokoke Scops Owl’s diet consists mainly of insects. Beetles and weevils are favorites. Grasshoppers, crickets, wasps, bees, and ants have also been identified as part of their diet.

Available data indicates that the owl’s population has remained relatively stable for the past 20 years or so.

However, the most recent data (an Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Adjacent Dwellers Association (ASFADA) survey) showed a southerly shift in the distribution of the bird’s population. Changing forest conditions in previously “preferred” habitat around Jilore and Komani were listed as probable causes.

Collecting data on the Sokoke Scops Owl is quite a daunting task. The surveys take months (November through to December), and take place at night (between 7 p.m. to 3 a.m.). Working in a forest filled with over 300 elephants is not for the faint-hearted. But to the citizen scientists or community volunteers that undertake the surveys, it is worth the risk posed by elephants to determine the status of the Sokoke Scops Owl. The volunteers involved include notable veteran guides Willy Kombe and ‘Mzee’ David Ngala, both of whom have been involved in countless research projects in this forest since 1990.

Survey teams are provided with equipment that includes data sheets, high-powered flashlights, GPS receivers, and machetes – all part of the daily routine. Every team comprises of three individuals each having a specialised task. There is an observer or owl whistler, a keen listener able to distinguish the Sokoke Scops Owl call from other forest sounds, which might be crickets, frogs, nightjars, bush babies, and other owl species. Next in line is a clerk or data recorder, followed by the navigator-cum-security officer tasked with reading the GPS and clearing the way for the other two.

Operations start just before dusk every day. Teams are assigned a starting point to a transect running along existing roads or old tracks, each for one kilometre. A supervisor coordinates the nightly effort and ensures the teams get to the forest and are dropped off at the right spots. Knowledge of the forest’s geography is important as a missed turn can lead to one getting lost.

Once a team is dropped off, a mark is made by cutting a twig (bush experience comes in handy). Each group makes marks to indicate the direction they have taken. There have been a few instances where groups have not marked their movement, sending the coordinating supervisor on a “wild goose drive” in the night.

On this night the fear of encountering elephants lingered in everyone’s mind, but nobody talked about it as we kept busy with our tasks. We were heading for our fifth stop when a thumping sound suddenly startled us. In the darkness, we could make out a silhouette of a charging elephant. Our survival instincts immediately kicked in. We dived into a nearby bush and lay listening as the elephant crushed trees along its path. Once again, we found ourselves crawling, only that this time, it was to save ourselves. Lucky for us, two spontaneous decisions we made paid off – the first was to move away from the road as we couldn’t outrun the elephant. Secondly, we stuck together. We remained on the ground motionless for two hours, before we attempted to head back to the road. Disoriented, we found ourselves going back in the wrong direction. Our GPS receiver had gone off. Somehow, after a long struggle we managed to get back to the vehicle. How we managed to escape with just a few bruises and only lost a pair of spectacles is a miracle.

This article first appeared in Issue 14, Kenya Birding magazine

For the love of Forests

“Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.”

 For many forest adjacent communities living around Mount Kenya the forest is their lifeline. It provides them with many products including water, firewood and timber. But, they have witnessed chunks of this once vast expanse of indigenous trees fall prey to over-exploitation and have felt the subsequent negative impacts – a constant reminder of the need to conserve the forest.

Drawing strength from their unity, communities have come together to form Community Forest Associations (CFAs), which are spread across Nyeri, Meru, Tharaka-Nithi, Embu and Kirinyaga counties. Nature Kenya is currently working with 27 CFAs around Mount Kenya with a cumulative membership of 67,500, including women, youth and persons living with disabilities.

Initially, the only focus of CFAs was to set up tree nurseries and propagate indigenous seedlings. They would then plant the seedlings in degraded forest blocks in their respective areas. Through training facilitated by Nature Kenya, and made possible by a project funded by the Darwin Initiative, CFAs have now started selling tree seedlings as a livelihood activity.


Growing interest in forest restoration

“Corporate bodies and people from further away are now complementing our efforts by providing implements like seeds, watering cans and growing bags. Our terms of service are very flexible and once the seedlings are ready for planting they can buy them at a discounted price. Also, we are at liberty to sell the remaining seedlings to other interested buyers at a cost we determine,” says 64- year old Elizabeth Kiogora, a member of North Imenti CFA.

The contribution of community members like Elizabeth does not end at the seedling propagation stage. Partnering organisations also engage the communities in clearing areas for planting, pitting and in the planting. CFA members are also hired to weed, replace dead seedlings and to nurture the tree seedlings until they are strong enough to grow on their own. During the short rains season (October-November) in 2019, Nature Kenya, with support from partners, mobilized 22 CFAs to plant 401,500 indigenous trees on 401 ha of degraded forest land.

Nature Kenya is also helping CFAs to establish other nature-based enterprises like beekeeping, eco-tourism and avitourism to supplement their livelihoods. Activities deemed as destructive to the forest are not permitted and CFAs are encouraged to diversify their sources of income by engaging in activities that promote forest conservation. “I was lucky to secure a piece of land close to the forest where I have set up a small woodlot. After doing some research on beekeeping I decided to put up a beehive in my woodlot as an experiment. Now I have two beehives, from which I get good returns. I have taken it upon myself to start educating fellow CFA members on beekeeping,” says 52-year-old Dorothy Naitore, a member of the Meru Forest Environmental Conservation and Protection CFA.

Dorothy also points out that it was only recently that members of her CFA realised that they had very beautiful nature trails in North Imenti. She has also noticed that birds are slowly returning to the areas that the CFA have restored.

“You can only appreciate the results of all the conservation work when you walk around the forest. Our next big plan is to engage in ecotourism. I think once tourists see the transformation, they will be encouraged to join us in restoring the Mount Kenya forest,” says Dorothy.

Both Dorothy and Elizabeth say that the fear of losing the glorious forest was what pushed them into conservation despite their advanced age. As if reading from the same script, the two agree that it should not take bad experiences like drying rivers for people to start conserving forests.